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Driving the Rio Grande Between Mexico and Texas

It was more than 30 years since I'd spent time in a border town, but I still had fond memories of visiting them as a kid growing up in San Antonio. I'd bellied up to my first bar, seen my first strip show, and at least, er, contemplated coming of age on the shadowy, dusty streets of Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros, and Reynosa. Back then, border towns were mostly harmless netherworlds where the collision of two languages, two currencies, and two sets of mores created a vacuum in which anything could happen. But now, surging immigration, the war on drugs, the chumminess between Presidents Bush and Fox, and free trade, not to mention the "Latin explosion" in the arts, are slowly erasing the line between the States and Mexico. The border, one of the continent's finest Nowheres, is becoming a great big Somewhere, with 4 million residents and several of the fastest-growing cities in the nation. Time even renamed this new Somewhere "Amexica." The news that it was being paved over into glorified truck stops for the New Economy called for one last winding trip up the Rio Grande to inspect the damage.

As my wife, Ann, and I left Dallas and headed for the border, rolling past Kingsville toward Texas's southernmost point, the spectral mesquite trees on the plains gradually gave way to palm and citrus. The air grew thick with humidity, and our radio began blaring Spanish. The border has always been seen here as neither Texan nor Mexican, but rather as a third sovereignty. To the senses, it is decidedly Latin: loud, bright, hot, romantic, tragic.

In Brownsville, a sweaty but hospitable port of 140,000, the roads were jammed, even on a Sunday. At one intersection I was nearly sideswiped by a lumbering Oldsmobile driven by a member of the region's swelling class of retirees known as snowbirds, and then almost rear-ended by a big, smoke-belching nafta truck. The border was a lot more fun when it was a dirty little secret.

We passed through town to the Rio Grande, parked on the American side (it's generally safe to drive in Mexico by day, but after dark we prefer to park and walk; if you drive, check your insurance coverage), and went over to Brownsville's sister city, Matamoros, in search of dinner. The border checkpoint still put on a good show, with its dingy, Stalinesque concrete and profusion of guys in uniform. But the Rio Grande is only a sickly trickle here, and the actual crossing was uneventful. We paid the toll (35 cents each) and set out on a 15-minute walk to Plaza Hidalgo to graze for street food. We found steaming chalupas piled high with beans and Monterey Jack cheese for less than a couple of dollars. Along the way, we passed a traffic jam, different from the American version in that everyone smiles as they honk their horns, like a celebration.

My new Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited served me well as I bullied my way through the kudzu of sprawl on U.S. 281 to Laredo the next morning. At first we saw low-slung factories, shiny Wal-Mart supercenters, and the apartment complexes that house the snowbirds. But around the next bend we passed through a colonia, a haphazard settlement of trailers and shanties—many without running water—inhabited by poverty-stricken immigrants. These places are reminders that whatever else the border has become, much of it remains poor and left behind.

Some border towns seem to embrace the boom with particular abandon. Time was when the only thing a gringo was asked in tiny Progreso, where we stopped that morning, was "You wanna good time?" These days it's "You wanna doctor?"—referring to the absurdly cheap prescription drugs (a third to a half off) and medical care ($10 teeth cleanings) available in Mexico. Of course, quality is a major concern, but plenty seem willing to take the risk. The town's single street was shoulder to shoulder with snowbirds wearing loud shorts and speaking in loud voices, most of them more interested in Viagra than in silver jewelry.

But for every yin on the border, there is a yang. Famished, we stopped in Roma (population 8,400), about 55 miles upriver from Progreso on the American side, at a run-down little shack called El Taco Rico, right on 83. The gorditas, sandwiches of piquant taco meat squeezed between fried corn cakes, were perfect. The town seemed so humble and uncorrupted—so un-Progreso—that after lunch we had to explore it, walking around a nicely restored mid-18th-century portion of downtown. Then we descended some steep concrete steps to the sandy banks of the river, where we gazed at a Rio Grande that seemed a continent removed from the sewage ditch we'd crossed back in Matamoros. Here the river was the rich green of fresh asparagus, and there was enough water to create ripples. If you closed your eyes, it wasn't hard to imagine the place as it had been when Indians, Spanish settlers, and wild horses roamed these banks.

The road to Laredo was still busy, but somehow less chaotic than it had been back in the lower valley. The endless construction sites were replaced by sizable stretches of vegetation, one of which led to Falcon Dam. We climbed to the top, where we felt as if we were flying over a river that at last looked as formidable as its name. On the Mexican side, there wasn't a uniform in sight, and I briefly had the delicious sensation that we were sneaking into Mexico. We reached La Posada Hotel in downtown Laredo at nightfall. This is still the toniest hotel on the border, a well-designed conversion of what used to be Laredo High School, of all things. It's right on the river, near the lovely Gothic Revival San Agustin cathedral. That's where the lovely stops, though. The two Laredos are among the boomingest boomtowns along the border (the combined population is more than half a million; 40 percent of truck traffic crosses here). In fact, Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican sister of the Texas city, seems to have become one big, brawling parody of a border town.

Not long after we crossed the bridge, a young man materialized from the shadows and asked, "Hey, mister—do you need anything?"

"Like what?"

"Anything."

Actually, all we were looking for was El Dorado Bar & Grill, which, with its long bar, high ceilings, thick smoke, and murmur of low voices, was right in sync with the edgy aura of this town. We enjoyed muscular Mexican coffee and tasty flan, then walked down Guerrero, the major shopping avenue, toward the river. It was a decent evening, pleasantly breezy, but I wasn't sorry to cross back over the bridge, lit from below by a huge surveillance beam. I felt like a deer in the headlights.

The next morning we set out north on I-35 to re-connect with 83 to Eagle Pass, a town easy to miss if you blink. Across the bridge, in Piedras Negras, I began an important investigation. Was it true, as I'd always heard, that the nacho was invented here?

The first fellow I asked replied, with a slightly indignant shrug, the sort of response you might get if you questioned the wisdom of the Warren Commission, "Claro." Of course. But he could provide no details. And neither could anyone else in this surprisingly authentic town. There are many measures of a city's heart, and one of the best is its citizens' insistence on any silly bit of civic mythology that can't be disproved.

Lunchtime found us at Restaurant Moderno, an ancient haunt with Early High Bordertown Gauche design: smoked mirrors, waiters in starched livery, syrupy piano music. We had a brimming platter of artery-clogging taquitos, fajitas, buttery guacamole, and, of course, those celebrated nachos. After lunch, we strolled through Mercado Zaragoza, where the artisans and vendors refreshingly spoke only Spanish. Unlike Nuevo Laredo, or even Progreso, Piedras Negras seemed to be struggling to recapture—or perhaps create for the first time—the ambience of a real Mexican village. We pushed the Jeep upriver another 55 miles to Del Rio, Texas, an eccentric old coot of a place that was founded in 1635 by Spanish missionaries. The infamous Judge Roy Bean is buried in the town, and the equally infamous DJ Wolfman Jack used to broadcast from here. Its sister city across the border is Ciudad Acuña, which has positioned itself as the kinder, gentler border town. That's certainly the impression we had after crossing over and easily finding well-lit, metered parking just a few blocks from our dinner destination, Crosby's. I faintly remembered the bar at Crosby's from my youth, but had no recollection of its well-aged, supper club—like dining room, where we enjoyed true Mexican food (as opposed to Tex-Mex): broiled red snapper Vera Cruz, Mexican rice, fried potatoes, and grilled peppers. Here was proof that border towns tend to get more civilized and less "Amexican" as you move upriver. As we drove out of town and headed northeast through the desert toward Dallas, I realized that though much of the border had forever changed, much of it remained the same. The border isn't really a melting pot, but more of a linear experience, an ever-shifting series of eras, peoples, and histories that is best seen from the road. You can't really understand the border by being in one place at one time—only by moving up or down or across and back.

Jim Atkinson, a writer at large for Texas Monthly, has also contributed to Esquire and Playboy.

the itinerary

Editor's note: Security at border checkpoints has increased dramatically in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The border between Texas and Mexico remains open as of press time, but travelers should be prepared to show proper identification when crossing and anticipate long lines on both sides of the border.

Since it's virtually impossible to drive the entire border, we basically triangulated south Texas. DAY 1 Take I-37 southeast out of San Antonio toward Robstown; switch to 77 due south to the Rio Grande Valley. Stay overnight in Brownsville. DAY 2 Follow 281 west upriver to Progreso, then on to McAllen, where you jog north and pick up 83. Continue northwest on 83 to Laredo. Overnight in Laredo. DAY 3 Take I-35 north to 83, and 83 west to Carrizo Springs and then to Eagle Pass; follow signs to the international bridge. Take 277 out of Eagle Pass northwest to Del Rio, and spend the night.

the facts

WHERE TO STAY

Four Points Sheraton 3777 N. Expressway at McAllen Blvd., Brownsville; 800/325-7385 or 956/547-1500, fax 956/547-1550; doubles from $79. La Posada Hotel/Suites 1000 Zaragoza St., Laredo; 800/444-2099 or 956/722-1701, fax 956/722-4758; doubles from $109. Villa Del Rio B&B 123 Hudson Dr., Del Rio; 800/995-1887 or 830/768-1100, fax 830/775-2691; doubles from $105.

WHERE TO EAT

Gio's Villa 2325 Central Blvd., Brownsville; 956/542-5054; dinner for two $16.
El Taco Rico Hwy. 83, Roma (just past the town center); 956/849-2435; dinner for two $15.
El Dorado Bar & Grill 401 Avda. Ocampo, Nuevo Laredo; 52-87/120-015; dinner for two $40.
Restaurant Moderno 407 Allende, Piedras Negras; 52-87/820-684; dinner for two $60.
Crosby's 195 Hidalgo St., Ciudad Acuña; 52-87/722-020; dinner for two $18.

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